Skip to main content

A Junior View From Potsdam

March 2023
1min read

We were pleased last year to publish for the first time (June/ July 1980) the private diary Harry S. Truman scribbled for his own information at Potsdam when, as the new President, he attended his first summit conference. His observations about the other world leaders were typically pungent.

While Truman was reacting to his counterparts, a young lieutenant, gleeful to have been assigned to duty at Potsdam, was reacting to Truman. This officer, James M. Vardaman, has sent us some letters he wrote home at the time. Lieutenant Vardaman had an unusual entree; he was the nephew of Truman’s naval aide, and he was introduced to an awesome roster of military and civilian brass. He confided to his mother that “I have to pinch myself every five minutes to see if I am not dreaming.” He noted that Stalin never seemed to change expression although “theoretically [he] smiles just as other humans do…” and he mentions Churchill “strolling out alone with his big cigar.”

But Truman was the person who completely captivated him. “He is the grandest and most natural man you ever saw,” Vardaman wrote his mother on August 2, 1945, as the conference was winding down. “The morning of the first there was nothing to do, and he got rather lonely, I think. So he wandered around from room to room just visiting and happy as a lamb about going home. He must have been in to see us four or five times. Once [we] were sitting around discussing women in general and our women in particular. All at once we heard, ‘Well, how’s the war going today?’ There he was standing in the doorway smiling from ear to ear. We jumped up and he came in asking us to sit down. As he passed me, he clasped my arm and, almost pulling me into the chair, said, ‘Sit down, sit down, sit down.’ I actually think he meant it but I wouldn’t have sat down for the world. I feel just as at home with him as I do with Dad, and so does everyone else and they are crazy about him. By this time you should have figured out … that I am pretty much of a Democrat.”

Now in civilian life, Mr. Vardaman is by profession a consulting forester and by avocation a bird watcher. In 1979 he set himself the staggering task, in birding terms, of sighting 700 varieties in a year—a goal that eluded him, but just barely; he sighted 699. CBS, Time , and even the Wall Street Journal all recorded his impressive near miss.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "August/september 1981"

Authored by: Martha C. Brown

America’s First Native Cookbook

Authored by: The Editors

A preview of a magnificent private collection of nineteenth-century art

Authored by: Richard Reinhardt

This puckish, nearly forgotten California architect built his own distinctive style on the simple principle that beauty alone endures

Authored by: Joseph J. Corn

The Rise and Fall of a Most American Dream

Authored by: Nat Brandt

In the Meuse-Argonne, this backwoods pacifist did what Marshal Foch saw as “the greatest thing accomplished by any private’ soldier of all the armies of Europe.”

Authored by: Peter Andrews

How a Courtly Game Became Big Business

Authored by: The Editors

The Forgotten Photographs of Nancy Ford Cones

Authored by: T. H. Watkins


Authored by: Walter Karp

How the happy combination of a millionaire and, a parson gave us Colonial Williamsburg, a place of surpassing loveliness—and a continuing reminder of what a truly bold enterprise our Revolution was

Authored by: John H. White, Jr.

The John Bull Steams Again

Featured Articles

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.